Erin Go Blah

Publication: The Columbia Spectator
Date Printed: April 11, 1996
By: Nicholas Kulish
In 1982, before MTV executives even thought of letting young musicians fool around with accoustic instruments, Shane MacGowan left his London punk group the Nipple Erectors to form the band Pogue Mahone with banjo player Jem Finer and tin whistle player Spider Stacey.

The Pogues took what they wanted from the Irish fold tradition, the complicated, beautiful melodies and the emotional, narrative song writing style, and combined it with the fast beat and urban attitude of London punk rock. The success of the band was almost universally attributed to MacGowan, who wrote every original song on the first two albums. His songs were, without a doubt, stylistically Irish folk songs, but he spoke to masses of young people in a way that old men singing about bygone events could not - using an angry, drunken tempo to keep them awake. The the Pogues released Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash in 1985 (title based on Winston Churchill's off-color remark that those three things were what kept the Royal Navy together), even hipster icon Tom Waits declared it his favorite album.

It is now 1996, and the Pogues have proven that good bands never die. They just stick around rehashing old material, less and less successfully, until no one is willing to buy their records. After MacGowan left the band, the group released the passable but disappointing Waiting for Herb. Retirement would have been the honorable move at this point. Nevertheless, the band has gone ahead and released their seventh full length album, Pogue Mahone, and with it, they have reached a new low.

The album is not horrible, but as banjo player and main songwriter Jem Finer puts it, "It's a less ambitious, rather conservative Pogues album, all in a well-established Pogues style." He's referring to songs like "Tosspint," one of the best tracks on the album, but nonetheless a weak remake of "Boys from the County Hell" (from Red Roses for Me). For every decent song, there's a terrible easy listening pop song like "Where That Love's Been Gone," "Love You 'Till The End," and the disastrous "The Sun and the Moon" (How can a band that built its reputation on great lyrics record "the snakes they can crawl and the cheetahs they can bawl"?).

In the past, Pogues songs featured lyrics that were tough and gritty. "I recall we took care of him one morning. We got him out the back and we broke his fucking balls. Maybe that was dreaming, and maybe that was real, but all I know is I left that place without a penny or fuckall," has been replaced with, "How come when I get the Ace of Hearts, you always get the Ace of Spades."

The best songwriting on the album comes from drummer Andrew Ranken. "Amadie," a raucous tune about the maiming of black Cajun singer Amadie Adouin, has more energy than any other track and includes a great banjo solo in the middle. "Four O'Clock in the Morning," a slow, bizarre song about his dying lover, shows a willingness to break new ground and commits what is apparently a sin on this album: It makes the listener think.

"Four O'Clock in the Morning" also showcases new band member James McNally, whose low whistle and uileann pipe playing give the song its haunting wuality. McNally plays these instruments, as well as the accordion, with skill and feeling. His low whistle part on "Oretown" saves what would otherwise be a monotonal track. Finer praises McNally highly, calling him an "instrumentally fantastic musician," - strong words from a man whose worked with legendary mandolin player Terry Woods.

The real weak point on the album is the singing. Spider Stacey is firmly established as the lead singer, doing the vocals on every track, but to put it bluntly, his voice is weak and uninspiring. There's not a moment on the entire album when where the vocals merit praise. Finer was also dissatisfied: "Spider has the 'Pogues-style' voice, but does nothing special with it. WEA (their British label) says there has to be an identifiable front man, but I think that' rubbish."

To make a long story short, the Pogues should stop making records. They were a special band because they played distinctive music passionately. Now, the passion is gone and the music is nearing pure mindless pop. These last two mediocre CDs begin to overshadow the superb music they made in the '80s.

On the up side, their live show is still worth seeing. Catch them tonight at the Supper Club. When they played the Beacon Theatre in '94, McNally lit up the stage with his solos and acrobatics. Just pray they skip the new material.

Copyright 1996, The Columbia Spectator
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